Nanjing & Beijing summer palace. June/October 1864

China has renewed a call for the return of relics looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 150 years ago this month. An act seen as a cause of national humiliation at the hands of the British and French coalition forces.

 In 1865 Victor Hugo wrote in protest to the French authorities:

“There was, in a corner of the world, a wonder of the world; this wonder was called the Summer Palace. All that can be begotten of the imagination of an almost extra-human people was there. It was not a single, unique work like the Parthenon. It was a kind of enormous model of the chimera, if the chimera can have a model. Imagine some inexpressible construction, something like a lunar building, and you will have the Summer Palace. Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, frame it with cedar wood, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem, elsewhere a citadel, put gods there, and monsters, varnish it, enamel it, gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such was this building. The slow work of generations had been necessary to create it. This edifice, as enormous as a city, had been built by the centuries, for whom? For the peoples. For the work of time belongs to man. Artists, poets and philosophers knew the Summer Palace; Voltaire talks of it. People spoke of the Parthenon in Greece, the pyramids in Egypt, the Coliseum in Rome, Notre-Dame in Paris, the Summer Palace in the Orient. If people did not see it they imagined it. It was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.”

 For a more detailed account of the incident, including the murder of British and French prisoners, for which the destruction of the Palace was retribution, see : http://www.qdg.org.uk/pages/China-War-1860-115.php

On 18 October 1860, at the culmination of the Second Opium War, the British and French troops entered the Forbidden City in Beijing. Following the decisive defeat of the Chinese, Prince Gong was compelled to sign two treaties on behalf of the Qing government with Lord Elgin and Baron Gros, who represented Britain and France respectively. The original plan was to burn down the Forbidden City as punishment for the mistreatment of European prisoners by Qing officials. Because doing so would jeopardise the treaty signing, the plan shifted to burning the Emperor’s garden estates of Qingyi Yuan and Yuanming Yuan instead. The peoples of Beijing were spared and the “Pleasure Place” with its concubines became a target. The treaties with France and Britain were signed in the Ministry of Rites building immediately south of the Forbidden City on 24 October 1860.


 The summer palace


This action of apparent wilful destruction should perhaps be taken in the context of the country as a whole. In the south of the country British and French forces were fighting side by side with the Qing Armies to overcome a 15 year old civil war which raged across 17 provinces. Even today this north/south suspicion remains.

Taiping Heavenly Army

China, under the Qing Dynasty in the mid-19th century suffered a series of natural disasters, economic problems and defeats at the hands of the ‘powers of imperialism’ in particular, the defeat in 1842 by the Britain in the 1st Opium War. The Qing, ethnically Manchu,were seen by much of the Chinese population, who were mainly Han, as ineffective and corrupt foreign rulers. Anti-Manchu sentiment was strongest in the south among the labouring classes and it was these disaffected who flocked to join the charismatic visionary Hong Xiuquan. The sect’s power grew in the late 1840s, initially by suppressing groups of bandits and pirates. Persecution by Qing authorities spurred the movement into a guerrilla rebellion and then into widespread, civil war.The rebels announced social reforms, including strict separation of the sexes, abolition of footbinding,land redistribution and “suppression” of private trade. They tried to ban Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism by imposing a form of Christianity, holding that Hong Xiuquan was the younger brother of jesus christ. 

Troops were nicknamed the Long hair as they sported a traditional Confucian hairstyle. The Qing government refered to them as “hair rebels” ( Fà Zéi).Within the land it controlled, the Taiping Heavenly Army established a  theocratic and militarised rule.  However, the rule was remarkably ineffective, haphazard and brutal; all efforts were concentrated on the army, and civil administration was non-existent. Rule was established in the major cities and the land outside the urban areas was little regarded. Even though polygamy was banned, Hong Xiuquan had numerous concubines. Many high-ranking Taiping officials kept concubines as a matter of prerogative, and lived as  kings’. The rebellion’s army was its key strength. It was marked by a high level of discipline and its loyalty to the leadership. They typically wore a uniform of red jackets with blue trousers and a large number of women serving in the Taiping Heavenly Army also distinguished it from European 19th-century armies.

Combat was always bloody and extremely brutal with little artillery but huge forces equipped with various small arms. The Taiping Army’s main strategy of conquest was to take major cities, consolidate their hold on the cities, then march out into the surrounding countryside to recruit local farmers and battle Imperial forces. At its zenith estimates of the overall size of the Taiping Heavenly Army numbered upward of three Million !

In August 1860 an attempt to take the port of Shanghai was repulsed by a force of Chinese troops and European officers, (Frederick Townsend Ward & Charles Gordon).This army would later become known as the “Ever Victorious Army”  led by “Chinese” Gordon,** and would be instrumental in the defeat of the Taiping rebels. Imperial forces were reorganized under the command of ZengGuofan & LiHongzhang, and the Imperial re-conquest had begun.  By early 1864 Imperial control in most areas was well established. Hong declared that God would defend Nanjing, but in June 1864, with Imperial forces approaching, he died of food poisoning as the city began to run out of food. Only a few days after his death the Imperial forces (Chinese, French and British) took the city. His body was buried in the former Ming Palace but was later exhumed by the conquering Zeng to verify his death, and then cremated. Hong Xiuquan ‘s ashes were then blasted out of a cannon in order to ensure that his remains had no resting place as eternal punishment for the uprising.

Sources put the number of dead during the 15 years of the Rebellion at about 20 million civilians and soldiers. The British action here enabled the Qing Dynasty to remain in power [Until 1911] – only Chinese historians are entitled to make comment on that !

 This ‘appropriation’ of ancient artifacts, not only from the Palace in 1860 but also from the robbing of the Mogao Grottoes. They contained priceless paintings, sculptures, some 50,000 Buddhist scriptures, historical documents, textiles, and other relics in the early 1900’s. Works of ancient art that are now hidden in private and museum vaults worldwide.

Finally, and in no way an excuse for the wonton destruction, we must remember that in the 3,000 years of recorded Chinese history, far more has been destroyed by the Chinese themselves in a continuous series of revolution and counter – revolution. The latest, we must remind ourselves,was 20 years ago.

**To read more about General Gordon see:



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